Marine protected areas



All jurisdictions other than the Northern Territory have legislation dedicated to the design, declaration and management of marine protected areas (MPAs) in their waters. Australia has a national program to coordinate the jurisdictions in their approach to design, declaration and reporting of MPAs (the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas—NRSMPA),88 and all jurisdictions support the NRSMPA. However, although the program has been in operation for 20 years, it has been unable to achieve a significant level of standardisation in planning, design or reporting on MPAs in Australian waters.

In 2004, the NRSMPA covered just 7% of Australia’s marine jurisdiction. It has now expanded to nearly 10% of Australia’s marine waters, mainly as a result of the declaration of large areas of MPAs in the south-east region.88 It is clear that Australia has been proactive in declaring MPAs to assist with biodiversity conservation, probably as a result of the highly valued marine biodiversity in our waters.

However, Australia’s focus has been on declaring MPAs for high protection in the offshore deep waters and on the Great Barrier Reef, not the continental shelf and shoreline elsewhere, where biodiversity values are most under pressure.89 Although there have been some attempts at interjurisdictional cooperation, the cross-shelf and interjurisdictional MPA planning to protect mutual biodiversity values and ecological processes has been lacking or heavily constrained. Although several states (such as South Australia) have active programs of MPAs that are well advanced, it is unclear what contributions these will make to the national system of MPAs. Many of the MPA designations have resulted from piecemeal or ad hoc decision-making and do not reflect the ecosystem-based or regionwide needs for conservation. In addition, a consistent approach among jurisdictions to the use of MPA designations is lacking—for example, a ‘marine park’ in Western Australia permits fishing, while in Victoria it does not.

In Victorian waters, there are 24 MPAs of category I or II (highly protected) under the classification system of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, a recent audit of performance found that only weak arrangements were in place to enable a clear definition of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities between stakeholders, and this prevented effective planning and management of the Victorian MPAs. The audit also found that there was little interaction between the various Victorian agencies that have marine interests or activities. This resulted in a lack of effective or efficient mechanisms for integrated management across all the environment issues in the state’s marine waters.90 In the face of the many environmental pressures, some of which are accelerating, this situation would generally be considered to pose an unacceptably high risk that significant biodiversity loss may be happening and passing unnoticed.

While the NRSMPA is intended to be underpinned by the ‘CAR’ principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness,i interpretation and implementation of these principles vary across jurisdictions, and there is considerable concern about a lack of attention to CAR principles in the NRSMPA.91 Clear and nationally consistent guidelines are lacking for applying CAR principles to inform the prioritisation and selection of areas; and complementary, ecosystem-based, cross-shelf planning is not widely conducted to coordinate national and state efforts. The lack of a cooperative and integrated approach to the planning and management of MPAs in Australian waters (particularly coastal shelf waters) has become a critical impediment to achieving an adequate level of conservation and effective management of representative elements of Australia’s marine environment and biodiversity.

As of 2008, Australia had declared 4.3% of its waters as highly protected (IUCN categories I and II) MPAs, including MPAs in Australian waters and state and territory waters (Table 6.1).

Table 6.1 Area (square kilometres) of Australia's marine parks and reserves in high-protection categories (IUCN categories I and II)











IUCN I 240 039 665 0 412 771 737 0 2 974  
IUCN II 117 558 0 a 16 197 865 477 535 a  
Sum of IUCN I and II 357 597 665 0 16 609 1636 1215 535 2 974 381 230
Total waters 8 528 214 8802 71 839 121 994 60 032 22 357 10 213 115 740 8 939 191
% in IUCN I and II 4.19 7.56 0.00 13.61 2.72 5.43 5.24 2.57 4.26

Australia = total for all jurisdictions; C’wlth = Commonwealth (managed by the Australian Government); NSW = New South Wales; IUCN = International Union for Conservation of Nature;NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

a IUCN II data from Western Australia and the Northern Territory have been removed, because in these jurisdictions fishing is permitted, which is inconsistent with IUCN II zoning

Source: 2008 Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database data (excludes the extended continental shelf and the Australian Antarctic Territory)

In addition to the NRSMPA system, a wide range of jurisdictional measures provide other forms of area protection for marine ecosystems. Each of these contributes to some elements of marine biodiversity protection, although not in any planned or systematic manner, nor with specific objectives for nature conservation. They include subsidiary marine protected areas that may be designated as no-fishing zones for the management of fish stocks, recreational zones designed for non-extractive tourism ventures, and Indigenous protected areas (IPAs). These subsidiary protected areas typically allow various forms of resource extraction, provide limited protection for species, and do not afford comprehensive area protection.

In northern Australia, there is rapidly increasing momentum to establish marine IPAs (on waters adjacent to Indigenous lands), but this is on an ad hoc basis without any consistent regional approach, and without any national or state and territory policy frameworks. The lack of these latter arrangements inhibits integration with broader management frameworks to ensure that protected area planning contributes to biodiversity protection through systematic planning underpinned by CAR principles. Terrestrial IPAs (see, for example, the Dhimurru IPA plan of management92) currently make a significant contribution to the regional terrestrial CAR principles, and it seems likely that well-planned marine IPAs could ultimately make an important contribution to regional marine conservation objectives.

At present, these various types of subsidiary areas are not considered to make a formal contribution to marine biodiversity protection because they usually do not have secure tenure—their uses can be reversed or altered without recourse to open public scrutiny and transparency. Generally, when MPAs are declared under parks and reserves legislation, formal public parliamentary processes—including a public debate—are required before their use can be altered or rescinded. Collectively, the lesser forms of protection cover large areas of Australia’s marine environment, but their contribution to the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity and environments cannot be easily assessed or compared with areas that are determined with a higher level of certainty, such as MPAs managed for high protection (IUCN categories I and II).

Ward T (2011). Marine environment: Marine protected areas. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296